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C of I researches medicinal value of sagebrush

February 26, 2015

Click here to check out the Idaho Statesman's recent coverage of the sagebrush research project, and here to check out a C of I photo gallery on Flickr.

The sun shone through wispy clouds as a gentle breeze roamed like a pioneer across miles of southwest Idaho sagebrush steppe. College of Idaho student Hana Hoang plucked a pale-blue leaf off a basin big sagebrush plant and held it under her nose. She grinded it between her fingers, releasing the volatile compounds that give sagebrush its bitter and spicy scent.

“This should be made into an essential oil or something,” Hoang said.

But sagebrush could have an even more valuable use. While the desert plant is known for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, C of I chemistry professor Dr. Carolyn Dadabay and her student research team are deconstructing sagebrush leaves to look for bioactive chemicals that could inhibit the body’s detoxification system.

In the right dose amount, these chemicals could help the human body keep medication in its system for longer periods of time.

“One of the biggest problems in developing drugs that work effectively is that your body is very good at getting rid of drugs,” Dadabay said. “And it has all these different mechanisms for getting rid of foreign compounds, and it uses those mechanisms to get rid of drugs. Then the drugs don’t work.”

On that day, students from the C of I and research partner Boise State University were collecting two types of sagebrush—basin big sagebrush and low sagebrush. The students snipped off leaves and put them into ziplock bags destined for the lab.

While the C of I is running a preclinical study on the compounds found in sagebrush, collaborator and Boise State biology professor Dr. Jennifer Forbey is looking at the ecological side of what compounds attract pygmy rabbits and sage grouse to nibble on one sagebrush plant versus another.

The smell and toxic nature of sagebrush repels most animals from eating it. But pygmy rabbits and sage grouse have a diet consisting mainly of the desert plant. They’ve adapted and found a way around its toxic nature. But even then, sagebrush makes chemicals that even those animals don’t want to eat, Dadabay said. And it’s those plants she is interested in.

“The chemistry that (the animals) are avoiding might be the place to look for very powerful drugs,” Dadabay said.

One of the students examining those chemicals is senior chemistry major Andrew Nguyen. He analyzes the sagebrush samples in the C of I lab, using a high-performance liquid chromatography machine to separate compounds of interest, such as polyphenols. The next step is to eventually identify specific compounds and see what effects they would have in the body.

The College of Idaho and Boise State are both part of the Idaho INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) program. The goals of the program are to establish a research network among Idaho institutions and increase that network’s capacity, to provide students with research opportunities, and to enhance science and technology knowledge of the state’s workforce. Dadabay’s project recently was awarded an INBRE grant totaling $764,000 over the next five years.

“The really great thing is we are setting up this infrastructure for drug discovery and we’re spreading it across the state,” Dadabay said.

Research technician and Lewis-Clark State College graduate Lauren James was accepted as a student into the INBRE program with Boise State last summer. She transitioned to become Dadabay’s lab manager this winter.

“The INBRE program provides a lot of great opportunities for Lewis-Clark students because we don’t get the chance to do a lot of research,” James said. “Other students and I from LCSC have been able to come down to BSU and C of I to work on the collaboration and get experience in the lab.”

College of Idaho students also are benefitting from working with two sets of faculty and being able to relate classroom-learned concepts and theory to the lab.

“I get to apply what I’ve learned to a real-world setting,” said senior chemistry major Cynthia Tang. “It definitely helps you understand what you’ve learned.”

“Much more memorable in this setting,” agreed senior math-physics major Blair Symington.

Whether or not Dadabay and her students will unearth the magic medicinal compound is yet to be seen. But perhaps sagebrush, which sprawls over 148 million acres in the West and was passed over by hundreds of thousands on the Oregon Trail, could be the new gold.

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars and 14 Marshall, Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit